The Great Migration: Where I've been

Friday, June 20, 2008


It is over three weeks since I arrived in Xela. I've already stayed up half the night with some insane Guatemalans, danced salsa with an expert, lit a candle for a saint, and gotten sick. (Don't worry, I was just regular cold sick...nothing gross or unfortunate. Poo's are still good.)

I realized not everyone (all four of my faithful readers...hi Mom) knows what I'm doing here in Guatemala. I'm actually just decadently on vacation. Sort of. I am taking Spanish classes to improve my Spanish, so I can understand my classes in Ecuador (I'm studying abroad in Guayaquil and Quito for a semester each next year). Five hours of one-on-one instruction, a homestay, activities of various sorts in Spanish, practice with friends (who cheat horribly, but we try)...I am hoping to be able to conduct myself with some dignity at the end of five weeks, and not seem like quite such the ignorant American as I travel around Guatemala for two more weeks. But truthfully, it feels like vacation. My days are full without being overwhelming, busy without being stressful. I'm being productive without really feeling like I'm working. It's disgustingly privileged, horrendously selfish, but god, I love every minute.

Travel is interesting, because in some ways you see something completely different. There are the most obvious things--a different language, different food, a different pace of life, different priorities. But there are also the things you don't notice right away. I was talking to the very nice owner of one of the many little bars in Xela, a young guy named Joel, and he was telling me about life in Xela, his girlfriend, his travels. I was very charmed, but I wondered how he stayed in business when I knew the bar to be less than popular. On the way home with some friends my naive little eyes were opened. He´s a drug dealer, of course, they told me. That´s how everyone affords anything here. The little bar he owns is just for fun. Oh. (Don´t worry, Mom, I´m not going to start heroine or anything...the cocaine is really doing the trick anyway.)

In other ways, though, travel allows you to see how similar everyone really is. I have had conversations that could only arise from being in such a foreign place, and I´ve had the exact same conversations as I do at home. My host mom´s grandson turned 5 a couple of weeks ago, and they took cakes to school to celebrate, and had a little family party at home in the evening. He got lots of nice things, clothes, shoes and whatnot, but all he cared about was the electric race car track. There is the same relationship drama, for extranjeros and Guatemaltecas. People live their lives.

Just as a side note, I would like to give myself credit for not cringing in the face of adversity at little Juansay´s birthday party a couple of weeks ago. I bought him some presents--but it was a rather stressful experience. What the hell do I know about 5-year-old Guatemalan boys? What do I know about children? So I got him a little motorcycle and an airplane thing. When he opened his presents, the look on his face of utter disgust was priceless. The family was very nice and said thank you and whatnot, but clearly I failed in the five-year-old boy department. However, I did not heed--I stood strong and accepted my failure with flying colors. Both the child and I will live to see another day. Ah, the difficulties of life in Guatemala.

I feel like I can never quite keep up with myself. Every time I report something back home, I feel like it is already out of date. I started this post more than a week ago, and my experiences and opinions have already changed 100 times.

This weekend has been utterly fantastic, and quite different from the past few weeks. Thursday afternoon, I went with a group from my school to a natural hot absolutely gorgeous spot in what felt like the middle of the rainforest. High forested mountains, lush greenery everywhere, steam rising from the pool as we chatted amidst the pounding of a tremendous tropical storm. As we ran the 200 meters or so back and forth to the bus we came in, our bare feet slapping the stones, barely shivering in the humid storm, I had to kind of remind myself of where I was. It´s easy to fall into patterns in life. Get used to things. But I am in Guatemala--learning and doing things that I don´t get to do everyday.

Friday afternoon, I caught a bus to a tiny little pueblo near Colomba, Guatemala. I miscalculated the distance to the bus stop, so ended up walking about an hour through Xela, asking for directions multiple times and barely understanding the answers. I finally arrived at what are known as Chicken Buses--old school buses decorated with insane colors and admissions of love for Jesus. There is no schedule in these situations; the bus just sits there until it has enough fares to make it worth the trip. Now, I complained when I had to take the bus to elementary school, but I didn´t know the half of it. Sitting three or more to a seat for an hour on a poorly paved road made my trek to 4th grade seem like a limo.

When I arrived at my stop, La Piedra, the bus slowed down more than actually stopped, and I had to climb over rows of Guatemalans to reach the door. When I looked around at my stop and the bus sped off, I realized that I was in the middle of freaking nowhere. No signs, no traffic. Only a foggy road leading somewhere I couldn´t see. Luckily, I was meeting a friend who was going to school in this little teeny, very poor town in the rainforest. I was wrong before--the hot springs weren´t in the middle of the rainforest. La Piedra and my friend´s spanish school were in the middle of the rainforest. I called my friend Avital, who actually went to Cleveland (she´s two years ahead of us, I don´t know if any of my Cleveland friends know her) and now goes to Berkeley. We by chance found out we were going to be in Guatemala at the same time before the end of the year, and had planned to meet up. This weekend just worked.

Her life is so different at this tiny school. While I spend my afternoons at internet cafes or in my single room with a host family or taking yoga classes, and my evenings going to concerts and bars and salsa clubs, there isn´t much to do in La Piedra but talk to locals, read, and just be in Guatemala. It´s a slow paced life, and I was so glad to able to be a part of it. But this place is so small I was told to bring my own food because there isn´t really anywhere to get any unless I was eating with a host family.

In the morning, we caught a pickup to Colomba, about 30 minutes away, and an actual little city. It´s funny, because while there are laws in the US about wearing a seatbelt, this land is so, shall we say, flexible, that they jam 17 people standing up in the back of a pickup truck. This is the expected form of transportation. Avital and I would smile nervously at each other every time our pickup swerved dangerously to avoid oncoming traffic or people walking or potholes. Yet this is the norm.

When we finally arrived in Colomba, we had to switch pickups in order to get to our true destination, a coffee farm called Santa Anita. Santa Anita is a cooperative started by ex-guerillas from the 36 year civil war here in Guatemala. All of the adults had once fought on the front lines for justice and equality, living in the mountains, sustaining themselves the kindness of residents and the hope that they were really making change. Avital and I ate with a host family--an absolutely incredible woman named Gloria and her three daughters. Luckily for me, Avital´s spanish is quite good, so she was able to help communication and translate for me. But over three meals, Gloria told us about her life as a guerilla, fighting for 8 years starting at age 14, and how her community of guerillas came together to start this farm after the peace accords were signed in 1996. They had ideals of equality and the life they wanted to create, and they worked hard to make it happen with Santa Anita. In many ways they´ve succeeded, but in other ways , like so many ideals, it isn´t quite the sunshiney life they had hoped. Without the threat of war and guns and constant violence, they began to prioritize their own lives and families above the success of the whole. Things change. But still, it is a fantastic place where they are making a life that is a step forward. Whatever that means.

We were also given what began as a tour of the coffee farm and turned into an incredible hike through the true middle of the rainforest. I was wrong again--not the hot springs, not La Piedra, but Santa Anita was the middle of the rainforest. Our tour guide Julio took us to a couple of lookouts where you could see for miles into a deep, lush forest, and not see one building. We hiked down a steep path, moist with the constant rain, slipping on wet rock. At one point, Julio stopped and machete-ed us walking sticks. We finally ended at the bottom of the valley at a true jungle waterfall.

But this is just another story. It´s difficult for me to figure out how to convey my life like this. It´s fun, it´s decadent, it´s silly, it´s easy, it´s interesting, it´s challenging, it´s mundane, it´s amazing. It´s everything. I am crossing paths with people that I am so sure I will never see again. I am wasting time. I am growing as a person. This post has become a kind of mishmosh of experiences and opinions from over a couple of weeks. I hope it makes some semblance of sense.


Mom said...

Everything sounds amazing. However, please limit your drug usage as you can't see the rainforest from a teeny tiny jail cell. ILYVM, mom

Hannah said...

i just realized you can leave comments.. hayley, i miss you, i read your blog to everyone is my family excluding the parts about your rampant drug addiction. and i agree with your mom..i feel the experience would be not as good if you were in jail.
p.s. you promised me you would stop smoking crack before you left.

Andrew said...

hayley, you do have another ready here. But i do wanna say that what you've done in the past month are my plans for the next 10 years. so freakin jealous of you. it sounds like you're havin an awesome time.

by the way, i'm actually in Costa Rica right now...a couple countries away from you. Vacation with the family.

Don't get killed (my expert advice). and keep the blog going!